If you haven’t heard of the Richtersveld I wouldn’t blame you. It is seriously off the beaten track. An area of outstanding beauty, high temperatures and little water wedged in the border-zone between Namibia and South Africa. It has a fearsome reputation for eating vehicles and venturers but also for extraordinary succulent plants, quartz fields and landscapes.
Some time last year, my faithful Landrover Basil and I ventured into it….
It took us two days and a thousand miles to reach. The temperatures were not all that high, it was September at the time and the wildflowers were blooming in that all-too-brief window of spring rainfall. Driving north from the fenced in, private, diamond mining town of Alexander Bay we found ample evidence of the odd relationship between working open cast mines and conservation along the banks of the Orange River.
The area is replete with mineral wealth. Diamonds in the braided and ancient river gravels, washed downstream from the hills in the hinterland mingle with metamorphic aureoles and peridotites. High points of hard rocks with concentric rings of varied minerals radiating from them. These yield garnets, lithium, lepidolites and on occasion beryls and sapphires. Large areas bordering the park were reclaimed, landscaped and left to develop plant life again. The region looked ‘raked-over’. With more time to explore I think there would be some interesting photographic opportunities around mining and the landscape – especially at night!
The Richtersveld is also an ‘odd-park-out’, in the South African context, because farmers are still active within its boundaries. The few remaining Nama peoples inhabit the region. They arrived in this remote area long before the other races of South Africa and should, perhaps, be regarded as the only remaining native inhabitants – the other ethnic groups all being later migrants from Europe, further north or east in Africa. The Nama are traditionally nomadic sheep herders and the ‘Fat-tailed’ sheep is a distinctly noticeable denizen of this arid and high country.
There are no facilities in the park. The last fuel and water is at the river crossing and border post of Sendelingsdrift, beyond there you are on your own. The feeling of slowly climbing the Swartpoort Pass (literally ‘Black Gate’ – Lord of the Rings moment anyone?!) – beyond help, bathed in rich, buttery sunshine, falling from a crystal African sky is beyond words. Summiting the Black Gate and looking down, deep into the mystery and magic of the valley beyond, stirs the soul. The scene is made for the compressed telephoto landscapes which I love shooting with a Canon 70-300mm F4-5.6 L IS.
Many of the valley roads are ‘Twee spoor’, Afrikaans for twin-track dirt road. They wind along dry desert river beds where water hasn’t flowed for twenty years – although the trees, the living ones, still recall it’s faintest taste at the furthest reach of their roots.
Here, in the spring, wild flowers live out their short lives in bands of exuberant and surprising colours. Purples, blues, yellows, reds, oranges and white amongst which the birds of the region hover.
The Grey-backed Sparrow-lark, Trac-Trac chat, Karoo chat, singing larks, Kestrels hunting for locusts all make their home here in the arid scrub. Beyond landscapes there are some excellent opportunities for wild bird photography.
Beyond the wildlife, the scenery has a special quality that took me a little while to understand. Firstly it changes surprisingly rapidly. The higher western end of the park receives more rain and is clothed in vegetation. The lower eastern end receives almost none and is bare, dusty, dramatic and remote. The second thing I noticed were the odd discolourations in the mountains and rocks. These are the product of metamorphic disturbance but beyond geology they produce an extraordinarily photogenic landscape. The reason for this is because it exhibits the characteristics of a landscape beneath swiftly changing cloud or light where there actually is no cloud or changing light. The effect is unusual and not immediately obvious, but it draws your eye deep into the scene.
The park is home to a wealth of wild plants and particularly rare succulents which eke out a narrow existence in well drained quartzite soils. These range in size from the tiny to the huge and often display delicate flowers along limbs. For close-up and macro shooters there is a LOT of opportunity, particularly when armed with knowledge of which species are rare.
The Canon 24-105mm F4 L IS doesn’t have the greatest reputation out there, but for a generalist, travel landscaper and close-up photographer there is little else that offers such a great range of capabilities. It’s magnification of 0.23 makes useful for close-ups as well as landscapes.
The area is also home to some of Africa’s rarest and slowest growing trees, the Kokerboom or Quiver Tree, named so because of the native peoples practice using hollow branches to carry arrows. These grow in rare forests and the eerie dry silence combined with the crunching quartz underfoot lend them a brooding, knowing presence in the gloaming.
One of Africa’s great rivers flows right through the centre of the region. The Orange River, which rises in the Drakensberg Mountains (Dragon Mountains) 800 miles away, and famously gave its name to one of the early Afrikaner republics, the Orange Free State. The stream gives life to almost everything here, much as the Nile does in the empty deserts of Egypt. It is the only water and forms the border with Namibia to the north.
The river valley offers superbly scenic vistas with the added bonus of additional bird life.
As the lingering silent day slides into night, bright, fat stars pop out of the violet sky and hang there, just out of reach, spinning slowly over this lonely, breathtaking and incredible wilderness.
An astrophotographers dream, though unfortunately I am no astrophotographer.